UTSA students
From left, UTSA students Joel Settles, Charles Mitchell and Terry
Camacho; new homeowner Julio Sanchez; UTSA students Marcos
Marquez and Vicky Medellin; and Jordana Barton, National LFIP

UTSA students learn from innovative Valley nonprofits

By Lisa Montoya
Researcher, UTSA Latino Financial Issues Program

(July 10, 2006)--UTSA students in the Community Leadership Seminar recently took a field trip to San Juan, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley to visit Proyecto Azteca and other organizations that help low-income colonia residents with affordable housing, micro-loans and community development.

The Community Leadership Seminar is part of the Latino Financial Issues Program (LFIP), a UTSA-community partnership project that teaches undergraduate and graduate students about policies and practices involved in small-scale economic development in the United States. The year-long, integrated course of study and service-learning promotes wealth and asset building in the Latino community.

Proyecto Azteca is known as one of the most innovative organizations in South Texas. Its self-help housing effort assists residents who otherwise could not afford a home.

Families work together to build homes at the Proyecto Azteca site under the guidance of construction supervisors. Once the shell is constructed, the families are trained to finish the house with stucco, paint, varnish and other materials and the homes are moved to the family's land where they do the finishing work.

A mortgage for $28,000 is financed at 0 percent interest. The loan terms allow families to pay ahead and take a break if their income is uneven during the year or in the event of an emergency. Many homeowners repay the loans in as little as seven years and loan payments finance more homes for local families.

UTSA students met with the construction supervisors and families and visited a completed home.

"This trip redefined 'poverty' or 'poor' to me," said UTSA student Charles Mitchell. "It showed me that poverty is not the lack of motivation or determination or desire. It is simply the lack of access. I learned that with very little effort many people can be included in society. Simple changes in requirements can allow many people to participate at a higher level."

Of their approach, student Joel Settles said, "Their main assertion that community development is about relationships and not bottom lines and numbers is inspiring."

Students also met with Cuauhtémoc Roldán, director of the Azteca Community Loan Fund (ACLF), a sister organization to Proyecto Azteca, which provides low-interest loans for small business.

ACLF invests in the community, which pays off in human dividends, dignity and self-sufficiency for families across the Valley.

Julio Sanchez is an example of the program's success. Several years ago, he was realizing his dream to make custom furniture -- with one major catch. He had only enough money to purchase material for one piece at a time.

ACLF secured a line of credit for him with a local building materials company and suddenly Sanchez could make several pieces of furniture at a time. Today, he has a line of credit, and doesn't use his personal capital to finance materials.

The small shop he oversees employs three assistants and who make 20 to 30 living room sets each month. More importantly, his family is self-sufficient, he stays close to them in his next-door workshop and he's started another business to support his family when furniture sales are down.

All of this is the result of ACLF and its commitment to helping families help themselves.

According to UTSA student Blanca Rosa Braswell Tucker, "The people, the mission and the success of Proyecto Azteca are the embodiment of grassroots success in the fight for social justice. Visiting the site and meeting all of the people that make up the program was truly inspiring. It gave me hope that there are people who care, and they are truly making a difference in the poverty crisis."

Student Marcos Marquez said, "The lessons LFIP scholars learned during our trip to the Valley transcended what we learned in books and lectures, even as they reinforced them. Nothing brings to life the value of policy advocacy more than seeing its impact on a family or a community."

The Latino Financial Issues Program is a yearlong academic program and includes training in policy analysis, financial and business literacy, and community economic development, and provides opportunities for service-learning and summer internships with community organizations, ACCION Texas small businesses, financial institutions and government. LFIP is a partnership of UTSA and ACCION Texas.

ACCION Texas is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization that provides credit to small businesses that do not have access to loans from commercial sources. Through its loans and services, ACCION Texas helps micro-entrepreneurs strengthen their businesses, stabilize and increase their incomes, create additional employment and contribute to the economic revitalization of communities.

For more information on the Latino Financial Issues Program, visit the National LFIP Web site or e-mail Lisa Montoya.

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